It was the social network that made an inauspicious start, pivoting and turning before striking gold at the hugely popular South by South West (SxSW) show in Austin, Texas in 2009. Prior to SxSW, Twitter had been around in a number of different formats, having clung on to SMS messaging and other similar but distinctly different ways of operating. In the summer of 2008, the company’s founding team got it right, beginning a journey that March which took the company to the dizzy heights of mass adoption. In the autumn of 2013, Twitter is preparing to IPO, but will the company ever achieve the mainstream, mass adoption of the social network big boy, Facebook?
In many ways the constant comparison is hugely unfair. The two businesses are very different, appealing to different users despite their huge crossover appeal. However both were initially founded within months of each other at the mid-point of last decade, a quirk of fate which guarantees that they’ll forever be directly compared.
However from the get-go, Facebook and Twitter grew at vastly different rates, and hit their viral peaks at different points. Facebook’s growth was exponential, virtually blowing up from its very launch. Those viral seeds around Zuckerberg’s university campus were powerful, providing the nutrients needed to propel the site to a billion users within years. Twitter, as we’ve already lauded to, did not have it so easy. By the time Twitter’s growth was reaching its viral optimal point, Facebook, it could be argued, had already hit its mountain top. Facebook’s peak was probably hit at some point in 2008, when the site reached the greatest number of ‘early adopters’ in core markets. The growth in advertising, as well as becoming a victim of its own success – teens will only put up with being ‘spied on by parents’ for so long – saw the beginning of a slight decline for Facebook. Its numbers of course remain immense, and global growth has largely plastered over the cracks.
Twitter on the other hand, perhaps has yet to peak. There’s certainly no evidence of a downturn in its popularity in the core USA, UK and european markets. The sites increasing popularity with celebrities is a driver, it remains the fastest way to break news and it has exciting monetisation methods ahead with global TV advertising tie-ups. Twitter is the ultimate ‘second-sceen’ network, used often to communicate and share developments on live sport, TV shows and other such TV content.
However, Twitter has always been a bit difficult to ‘get’. Facebook’s drivers were primal and easy to compute. You could log on and see pictures of friends and classmates. You could keep in touch with distant friends whilst at university. Simple updates from friends were easy to comment on and interaction was constant. Twitter was harder to get, often partially because its so simple. Its core product is a ticker of content that is all less than 140 characters. So what?
Ultimately, people used twitter for their own reasons. Celebrities found it to be a great new communications platform, giving the opportunity to interact with millions of their fans and to
push their personal brand. Businesses to saw the vested interest and marketing opportunity, and wasted little time to get on board. Twitter’s open ecosystem certainly made it a marketers dream, and even today its estimated that as many as 30% of all tweets are spam. Then there is the news angle, especially the chance to get a more personal relationship with favourite bloggers and news and journalists. Finally, other segments evolved around disgruntled Facebook users and the like, who moved over to Twitter as their parents invaded Facebook. These users share photos and updates, and generally try and mould Twitter to be more like Facebook.
Of course there are many more user segments, and there-in lies the complexity of Twitter. Its almost a case that the more things you can do on the site, the more disparate its user base becomes. Its lack of one simple purpose that appeals to all seems to have held Twitter off from becoming truly mainstream. More people in the USA don’t use Twitter compared to those that do, which is the opposite of Facebook. As 2013 enters its final quarter, its increasingly hard to see the company ever hitting the mass reach of Facebook.
In their IPO literature, Twitter admit this. They accept that their product can be perceived as being “confusing”. This is compounded by difficulty in turning new members into active users. Unlike Facebook, who are hugely successful here, new registrants on Twitter often struggle to move towards being active. there’s a perception that you have to tweet, or that you need to bring a big personal brand to have value on Twitter.
The reality though lies in the fact that the majority of twitters users do not tweet, and never will. Twitter, unlike Facebook, is increasingly positioned as more of a media outlet. Twitter are arguing that they’re actually more of a curated web publisher rather than social network. Where they have been immensely successful is in pulling in the people behind the news on leading publications like the BBC, the major newspapers and the big magazines. Twitter is thus more of a curated news stream, and it should be judged more on the metrics that these companies pride themselves on.
This means that they face a whole new challenge to monetise in a similar way to the publications. Ad men will be looking at a ‘earnings per timeline view’ metric, and wanting to wring every last penny of value from such views. The company has a long way to go, having lost $50 this year so far. Growth rates are slowing, but still positive, but theres increasingly a feeling that the 50 million monthly active users in the USA is about Twitters level. Now its time to turn that very good, if not Facebook supreme, reach in to proper dollars. It will be fascinating to observe their IPO, and to watch the company map out their next phase.